In opening his 2003 speech “Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About,” Bob Avakian—the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)—traced the rivers of Black blood that feed the ocean of American history. After angrily recounting some of the most horrific instances of lynching that occurred on U.S. soil, Avakian quoted an author who had written a book about the subject as saying: “It is doubtful that any Black male growing up in the rural South, in the period from 1900-1940, was not traumatized by a fear of being lynched.”
A few minutes later in this talk, Avakian updated the author’s observation to reflect modern U.S. society. “Today it is mostly the police— who openly, as the police— carry out brutality and terror against Black youth and Black people in general,” Avakian said. “Applying that author’s statement on lynching to the present, we could put it this way: ‘It is doubtful that there is a young Black male growing up in the US today – in the south or the north- who does not have a very real fear of being brutalized or even murdered by the police.’”
It is has been very difficult not to hear the echo of Avakian’s words in the days since April 25. That was the date, of course, when the American “criminal justice” system reminded us that police execution of Black people is legal in the United States of America.
Is this too extreme a characterization of the acquittal of NYPD Officers Marc Cooper, Gescard F. Isnora, and Michael Oliver in the killing of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old Black male? If it seems that way at first, perhaps this is because the major media, and large sections of the American public—even those sincerely outraged by the verdict —would be highly reluctant to frame Bell’s killing in those terms. “That’s going too far,” would come the refrain.
Murder – Plain And Simple
But really, imagine you are Sean Bell. You are out with friends celebrating, before getting married the next day. You get into your vehicle, preparing to leave a party, when suddenly several men draw their guns on you. Neither you nor anybody in your vehicle has a weapon, or is even breaking the law. And yet the men fire 50 shots. 50! For a moment, imagine what it would sound like, feel like, and look like if 50 bullets were fired at you. Imagine the sensation of 11 of those bullets striking you in the face, shoulders, and legs (Bell’s friend Joseph Guzman), or four fatal shots entering your arms, lungs, and liver (Bell himself).
Now imagine you are the parents of Sean Bell. You frantically arrive at the hospital, aware that something horrible has just happened to your loved one. But doctors will not let you see your own son, or even tell you what is going on. Then, when finally you do see him, he is lifeless. And – like his bullet-riddled friends – he is handcuffed. To a gurney.
What would you possibly call this, if not an execution? And when— after a two-month legal proceeding in which Bell’s friends were put on trial rather than the officers who shot at them—a Judge declares that the killers are guilty of literally nothing wrong, what conclusion can you possibly draw other than that the American legal system finds no fault in the execution of Black people?
To arrive at a different summation than that, you would basically have to argue one of two things: Either (1) that Sean Bell and his friends did something that gave police justification to shoot them 50 times, or (2) That while the killing of Sean Bell and the acquittal of the three officers indeed represents an outrage, this travesty is an exception to the rule of what usually happens to African-Americans in the “criminal justice” system.
Well, on the first of those two points, let’s start by considering the NYPD’s version of what happened outside the Club Kalua on November 25, 2006: Officers on the scene hear Guzman say, “Yo, get my gun!” during the course of an altercation with a group of men at the club. These officers proceed to follow Guzman, Bell, and their friends to their car, allowing the vehicle to leave the establishment before blocking its further advance on a nearby street. Officers then draw their guns and clearly identify themselves as police. Bell and his friends try to drive away, therefore their car lurches forward towards police. Police begin firing.
Now, before we continue, several things need to be pointed out or asked: 1) Guzman has emphatically denied telling friends, “Yo, get my gun.” He stated in court, “That’s not a good bluff where I come from.” 2) If officers really thought Guzman or someone in his party had a gun and were concerned he was about to use it, why would they allow him to get in a vehicle and drive away from the Kalua Club? 3) Bell’s friends and other witnesses dispute that the undercover officers identified themselves as cops. 4) If Bell’s friends are telling the truth that the police did not identify themselves as such, who wouldn’t drive away when guns are drawn on their car? 5) A stripper from the Kalua club testified during the trial that, in actuality, Officer Oliver fired on Bell and his friends as soon as his vehicle crashed into Bell’s car, as Oliver moved to block off its exit route.
But, in spite of all that, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the police are telling the truth. Yes, for a second, let’s pretend there is no history of cops systematically lying to justify abuse or murder against people of color. Let’s pretend that those nail holes inside Fred Hampton’s apartment really were bullet holes; that former LAPD detective and current Fox News commentator Mark Fuhrman never bragged on tape about planting evidence on people of color; that the Rampart scandal— proving the existence of many more Mark Fuhrmans in the LAPD — never happened; that the Chicago PD was not found to have repeatedly tortured African-Americans from the 1970s to the 1990s in an effort to get confessions. Let’s say, in other words, that there were no reason to doubt the NYPD version of what happened to Sean Bell, and let us temporarily take the police account of events as unquestioned fact.
Even according to their rendition of events, police officers fired 50 shots—enough gunfire that they had to stop to reload —at men who had no weapons and were not even breaking the law. Recall that in the case of the Amadou Diallo murder in 1999, officers said they believed Diallo
In what universe, then, was the shooting of Sean Bell justified?
Hardly the First … or Second …or Third Time
But is Bell’s fate really emblematic of how Black Americans are treated in U.S. law and society? Or is his death merely a testament to a few rogue cops and one corrupt judge?